Polyurethane is the key component of these roller coaster wheels

Technology |  2 min. read

What makes a roller coaster roll?

Ok, maybe that’s a trick question because the answer is – its wheels! (Like anything else that rolls.)

But when you’re talking about the fastest roller coaster in the country (128 miles an hour), and the tallest roller coaster in the world (456 feet high), and you’re sitting in the front car on Kingda Ka (that fastest, tallest roller coaster), you don’t want to be riding on just any wheels.

Happily, you’re not.

Pretty much every new, fast, tall, steel track roller coaster rides on wheels made of polyurethane.  And polyurethane, you know about polyurethane, even if you don’t know the name:  you might be sitting on it right now, in fact.  It’s the stuff cushions are made of – chairs, sofas, beds, even in cars, but you’re not reading this in the car, are you?

But, you can also make a tough, hard polyurethane, and that’s the kind used for roller coaster wheels.  This version makes for a fast, smooth ride and it holds up at 128 miles an hour.

That polyurethane gets a workout too because most roller coasters have THREE types of wheels:  top wheels, which sit on the track; side wheels, which keep the coaster cars on the track during turns, and bottom wheels which (very important) keep the roller coaster from going up off the track and airborne.

All those polyurethanes start from the same place though – the petrochemicals benzene or toluene, which are naturally occurring molecules found in oil.  In turn those chemicals are combined with other chemicals until you get tough, flexible chains of molecules.  Like polyurethane.

>> Related: What other products wouldn’t be possible without petrochemicals? The answer may surprise you.

You remember we said “pretty much” every new roller coaster rides on polyurethane?  There are some exceptions, and those wheels are made from nylon.  And nylon also starts with one of two petrochemicals: benzene or butadiene.

So, if roller coasters are your thing, you can find Kingda Ka at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey.  And if that’s not fast enough for you. Try Formula Rossa, where you can hit 149 miles an hour.  But for that — you have to go to Abu Dhabi.